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Need School Supplies? -- Ask and You Shall Receive!

An organization called PENCIL connects the dots between New York City schools and businesses that have surplus supplies to give. Through PENCIL programs, the schools obtain funds, materials, and support. Is it possible to obtain similar benefits for your school? One principal offers his best suggestions for forging an educational partnership with your community. Also: Information about a handful of programs that help provide needed supplies for schools.

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Clinton shares her views of her Principal for a Day experience with 500 other PFADs at PENCIL's Town Meeting at the New York Public Library on April 29, 1999. Looking on in the background are PENCIL's president and founder, Lisa Belzberg, and Charlie Rose, host of the Charlie Rose Show and CBS's 60 Minutes II, who served as moderator.
Photo: Daniel Root

"Don't judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins," says a Native American proverb. That wisdom could be applied to the administrator in the public school. While many people complain about the public education system, PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement) invites civic leaders, heads of corporations, and well-known writers and entertainers to walk in the shoes of principals in New York City schools. And minds are changing!

Established in 1995, PENCIL was created to provide a bridge between the New York City schools and the community they serve. Through the cooperation and participation of individuals and companies, PENCIL has obtained millions of dollars, materials, and immeasurable time for the more than 1 million public school students in the city. The organization has two main programs that have direct benefits for the participants: Principal for a Day and the Resource Bank.


Among the famous participants in the Principal for a Day program have been Richard Riley, secretary of education; Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services; and Tipper Gore, wife of vice president Al Gore. This year the occasion drew an even more prominent figure -- the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was a Principal for a Day at Virgil I. Grissom Junior High School in Ozone Park, in Queens.

"Like the thousand other Principals for a Day placed in schools across the city, Mrs. Clinton spent the entire day at her school," reported Jennifer Eason, director of communications at PENCIL. "She opened up the school by making the morning announcements, visited classrooms and teachers, and also met with a group of eighth graders to discuss social issues, current events (such as Kosovo and Littleton, Colorado), and the challenges of being teenagers in this day and age. At the end of the day, Mrs. Clinton joined 500 other Principals for a Day at the New York Public Library, where she sat in the audience and listened to people discuss what they experienced and their impressions of New York City's public schools."

Jane Pauley
Jane Pauley, Dateline NBC anchor, addresses the annual Principal for a Day Town Meeting, hosted by PENCIL. "PENCIL's point is that the private sector can't afford not to be involved in public schools," Pauley told the gathering. "The genius of Principal for a Day isn't only linking people and schools-but also people with resources."
Photo: Gerald Peart

Celebrities, politicians, and business leaders have left their offices and volunteered to spend a day in a school building, side-by-side with its principal, to see just what is happening in New York's public schools. More than a thousand individuals have signed up for PENCIL's Principal for a Day program, representing more than 95 major corporations.

The experiences of some participants have led to the creation of student-run businesses, funds for new construction and renovation, mentoring and internship programs, and more.

Lisa Belzberg, president of PENCIL, said, "We are proud that the program has literally changed the face of many schools with large projects such as new gardens, playgrounds, media centers and the Book Fund -- as well as with important smaller donations. Scores of PFAD (Principal for a Day)-initiated reading and tutoring programs are available throughout the school system. Students are now eligible for new internships and summer jobs, contributing to a vibrant learning environment in the New York City public schools."

The PENCIL Book Fund is an annual initiative with the publishing community that replenishes depleted book supplies in public schools. To date, 1.6 million books have been distributed. VH1 collaborated with PENCIL to establish the VH1 Save the Music initiative. The program has contributed 1 million dollars to New York City schools for music programs. Another endeavor is the New York City Youth Video Festival, an annual contest that offers real opportunities for students to learn the media arts. All those programs began through the efforts of Principal for a Day.

"We bring many sectors of the city together for this one day. An investment banker meets a nine-year-old who just moved here from Pakistan. A 30-year veteran educator spends the day with the owner of the chicest restaurant in the city. A bank vice president and a city council member confer on how they can help the neighborhood school; etc.," Belzburg explained. "By far my favorite comment from participants, and one that I hear often, is that after being in the schools, PFADs look at kids in this city differently."

This year, the PENCIL Principal for a Day program was launched in two additional cities: Chicago and Los Angeles. New York's program was held on April 29, and the observance occurred on April 20 in Chicago and April 30 in Los Angeles. PENCIL representatives assisted organizers in those locations and offered consultation so the cities were able to implement the program effectively.


As the principal of CES 166, a middle school in the Bronx, New York, Nelson Abreu has made it his goal to create an "island" out of the school. Although the focus is on academics, staff members also strive to meet students' other needs. Located in an extremely low-income district, the school building houses more than 1,300 students in grades 5 through 8. The school has two goals in Abreu's view: to provide enough materials and instructors so that no student can use a lack of anything as an excuse to fail and to keep the building open as much as possible to allow students to extend the learning experience.

Abreu first learned about the Principal for a Day program from PENCIL at its inception. Several individuals have visited the school in PFAD capacity during the school year. When Abreu has the opportunity, he makes a point of encouraging the visitor to adopt a child in the classroom, several children, or the entire school.

His efforts are paying off. Abreu has forged partnerships that supply the school with computers, basketballs, and other materials. A representative from Estee Lauder Companies, Inc., has shown particular interest in the school and has arranged for several shipments of "obsolete" office supplies that have been put to good use in the building. A recent donation from Microsoft included four new computers! The Principal for a Day program has worked very well in Abreu's school, both in the short term and the long term.


Principal for a Day is not the only initiative sponsored by PENCIL. The Resource Bank is another way for administrators to secure materials from the private sector through the organization. Principals submit their "wish lists" of supplies -- art materials, musical instruments, furniture, services, and more -- and PENCIL publishes their requests on the Resource Bank Web page. Companies root around their offices for surplus materials that match these needs. In some cases, individuals purchase the items to donate. It is a win-win situation -- schools get exactly what they need, and corporate leaders feel better for making use of extra materials that might otherwise go to waste.

Eason says that the materials desired by schools in the program vary greatly. "In terms of the resource needs we are serving, there is not any one item that we go after or that schools have indicated they are in need of," she explained. "Schools tell us what they need, and we post those items on the Resource Bank. Schools have asked for everything from art supplies to furniture to computers to sports equipment -- we list everything. I would have to say schools' immediate needs cover a little bit of everything; however, in general we give away computers, books, and art supplies in the largest numbers."

PENCIL appears to be an organization that is unique in its purpose and existence. "Although we have searched, we have not found any programs similar to the Resource Bank being run elsewhere," Eason said. PENCIL organizers, however, are eager to assist those who want to learn more about the operation.


In addition to his dealings with PENCIL, Nelson Abreu has made it his mission to contact health-care facilities, businesses, and individuals in the community and invite them into the school. He doesn't come empty-handed to such meetings; he looks for ways that the school can return the favors granted by its contributors. The school gives many performances throughout the year, including dance, such as ballet. It has taken a shelter for battered women under its wing, and its students performed a Christmas show for the residents this year.

According to Abreu, the key to bringing funds and materials into a school is "outreach." "Consider the community a mutual partner," he suggested. "Contact hospitals, clinics, and doctors and ask them to invite students who are interested in medicine to come into their buildings. Call your congressional representative, and tell him or her what you need. Look for benefactors." Abreu knows what he's talking about. His school recently secured a federal grant that will allow the building to remain open after the end of after-school programs, until 9:30 p.m., during the school year so that students may study and receive special instruction to supplement their school day.

Abreu also looks for opportunities to introduce his students to role models and to connect with the community. "We have two career days in our school," said Abreu. "The Navy, the Marines, and transportation people are there. We invite social workers and people who are in food service to come. They all come for the day; we give them lunch, and they talk to our students. People from the courthouse visit for mock trials. Lawyers come to school weekly to teach the students about the law and the courtroom."

In an endeavor called the Lovables, a group of women from New York City adopted 15 children at CES 166. They have helped not only the kids but their families as well. The aid they provide has included help in finding jobs, medical attention, nutrition workshops, after-school programs, and tutoring. The group has followed the children through the middle school and into high school.

"What the community gets back ... are wholesome children who help the community survive," says Abreu.


The following national programs can help you collect more than pencils for your school!

Box Tops for Education from General Mills involves collecting box tops from cereals and snacks and submitting them to the company in return for funds. In existence for three years, the program pays 10 to 15 cents per box top in the form of a check made out to the school. Schools use the money to buy any supplies they choose.

Many educators are already familiar with the Campbell's Labels for Education program, which has been around for 27 years. This means of support enables schools to select from a variety of materials in a merchandise catalog. Participating schools gather labels from Campbell's products and ship them to the company in exchange for these supplies.

Although AT&T Learning Points is changing, this offering from the telephone company will be in place in a new form for this coming school year. Customers who register can obtain five points for a school of their choice for every dollar they spend on AT&T charges. Participating schools redeem the points for educational technology products. See the Web site for the latest information.

Share the Technology donates computer equipment to schools and nonprofit organizations in New Jersey and the Delaware Valley. Though it does not ship materials out of state, it does operate a database that provides a means of connecting schools with companies in their area that have computers to offer. Schools may post requests to the site, and companies can submit lists of what they have available to give.

Another organization that helps schools collect computer equipment is Computers for Learning. To register for the program, go to the Web site. Materials come from federal offices and are granted to schools and educational nonprofit organizations. Special consideration is given to those groups with the greatest need.

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